Turning Tricks With The Amazing Ray
With Nothing Up His Sleeve, Ray Anderson Pulls Wonder -- and Laughter -- From Thin Air
He is stuffed into a box half his size with only his hands sticking out, and they're shackled. Meanwhile, suspended over him is the Claw, a metal arm sporting five foot-long spikes on the end and held up by a rope. Once the rope is set afire, he'll have somewhere between 20 and 60 seconds to get free before the rope burns through and the claw crashes down into the box.
Welcome to Ray Anderson's day job.
Five shows a week, 51 weeks a year, Anderson may be found inside the fancifully painted building at the corner of Red River and East Sixth extracting himself from deadly danger, disappearing from locked trunks, sawing people in half or compressing them into just heads and feet or levitating them, making a cane fly mysteriously around his body, or lying perfectly straight atop a single steel spike -- until it pops through his chest, impaling him!
Not the kind of living that would suit just anyone, but it fits Anderson like a silk top hat you can pull a rabbit out of. Fascinated with magic since he was a kid and blessed with a natural stage presence, Ray Anderson is right at home in front of an audience, mystifying them. And they adore being mystified by him, especially when he magically transforms their gasps of wonder into gut-shaking guffaws. His illusions, which are frequently, you might say, tricked out with comic banter and outrageous characters, are so entertaining, they're staged with such showmanship and finesse and comedic flair, that they've become staples at Esther's Follies and made Ray Anderson not only one of the Austin comedy revue's bona fide stars, but a magician known and respected by his peers in the profession as well.
He's had a run in this job that might have exhausted a man in a less demanding trade -- 17 years so far -- but Anderson has yet to show any sign that he's ready to turn in his wand. On the contrary, he's just debuted the escape act described above and is hard at work imagining a new original illusion for the Follies. Magic may be Anderson's livelihood, but clearly for him it's not just a job, it's an adventure.
Anderson has been under magic's spell since an early age, and, unlikely as it may sound, Tony Curtis is to blame. As a kid in Victoria, Texas, little RayRay saw Curtis portray Harry Houdini in a Hollywood version of the escape artist's life, and for reasons Anderson himself still doesn't fully comprehend, it made a deep impression on him -- not so much the figure of Houdini as the profession of magician. It was the bare bulb on the front porch, and poor little Ray couldn't flap his wings fast enough to get closer to it. When his parents gave him a Peter Pan magic set the Christmas he was in the third grade, he headed down a road and has never looked back. Magic became the only thing he wanted to do, and it's the only thing he's ever really done since.
No Hogwarts in Victoria
Of course, there was no school for aspiring wizards in Victoria, certainly not in the 1960s. But having no Dumbledore to tutor him in the ways of sorcery didn't stop young Ray. He went to the local library and found anything he could get his magic-hungry hands on. As he tells it, there was only a very modest number of books there, and he plowed through them all rather quickly. But, he says, "When I ran out of books to read, I would just read the same ones over again. I loved them so much, to the point where I could feel like I knew everything I could possibly know about these books."
By fourth grade, Anderson had progressed to the point that he was doing magic shows in the garage -- and charging for them. Still, he was flying blind. The only magician that he really knew was the one who stared out at him from the mirror.
It wasn't until a few years later that Anderson discovered living, breathing professional magicians through a series of TV specials called The Magic Circus, sponsored by Pillsbury and starring the illusionist Mark Wilson, assisted by his wife Nani Darnell. "That was the first time I ever saw an illusionist, as opposed to the escape artist in Houdini," Anderson recalls. "This was my first time to see what a modern-day magician did, and I was totally, totally hooked. Not only did he get to stand up there and make all these fabulous things happen, but he had this beautiful blond assistant that he left with at the end of the night."
Through his high school years, television, with its specials by Wilson and the relentlessly chipper Doug Henning, provided Anderson with a lifeline to magicians until he could get out of Victoria and make contact with some on his own. A trip to a noted magic emporium in Dallas when he was 16 afforded him his first close encounter, and that was followed by many more when he moved to Austin a few years later to attend college. Alas, UT wasn't offering a degree in prestidigitation or escape artistry, so Ray bided his time in the theatre department, where he could at least hone his stage skills. Meanwhile, he was getting to know local magicians such as Kent Cummins, who helped Ray refine the abilities he needed to embark on his true career path.
By the mid-Eighties, Anderson had scored a couple of gigs that were definitely a cut above the self-produced garage galas -- close-up magic in local restaurants -- but they weren't quite what he dreamed performing magic to be. That he found only after taking a dip in a little place run by Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton called Esther's Pool.
Now, Ray Anderson will tell you that he did not set forth on a life of magic with a tightly plotted timeline and set of career goals. There was no: "Have sponge-ball sleight-of-hand perfected by age 22. Saw woman in half by age 24. Develop sleazy comedy magician character by age 26. Headline for Austin musical comedy troupe by age 28. Get first cable special by age 32. Make David Copperfield disappear by age 35."
He's a Magic Man
"I didn't have a moment where I decided this is what I'm going to do. It happened as life happens," he insists. "As Esther's grew, so did I. When I started at Esther's, it was in a tiny little building that sat a hundred people, and I was doing sponge balls. Then they ended up getting a larger place and then a larger place, and I kept growing with them -- and not only that but getting more professional as Esther's was getting more professional."
In other words, the sponge balls begat the dancing cane, which begat the levitation, which begat the impaling, which begat the Claw. Each progression in the size or complexity or technical challenge of the trick revealed Anderson's growth in performance -- the enhanced poise and polish in presentation, the ever-more easy rapport with the audience -- as well as the breadth of his imagination in dealing with the limitations of the space.
A postage-stamp stage? Well, it may prevent Anderson from making elephants vanish, but it wouldn't stop him from providing spectacle altogether. His "Flashback" metamorphosis act involves a spinning mirror ball, Afros the size of beach balls, and a couple of dancing queens. In the "Impaled" routine, he has black-garbed assistants slide down ropes from the fly loft, as if on a Mission: Impossible. With his new illusion, the Claw, he fills the stage with a massive mousetrap mechanism behind which hangs a vintage 20-sheet poster for the Great George, a magician from the 1920s. (For the story on this recent addition, see "Sharpening the Claw," below.)
Windows behind the stage? Not many magicians would relish having to perform an act that can be seen by bystanders behind them as well as the audience out front. But Anderson has embraced the challenge and makes sure that every illusion he performs can be viewed from the sidewalk on Sixth Street without its secret being revealed. He interacts with the folks on the street, shooting one-liners at them out the window and using their reactions to magnify the power of the act for the viewers inside.
As if that weren't enough, each new generation of trick has also bred some new character for Anderson to embody: the glaring robot who gets eyelash to eyelash with unsuspecting audience members; the bespectacled janitor shyly expressing his feelings for his custodial colleague; and, yes, the Amazing Frank, that lascivious, low-rent macho mage in the cut-to-the-navel tiger-print shirt and tights that hug the outrageous bulge due south of his belt buckle.
To watch Anderson play these characters today, when they are so seamlessly woven into the Follies fabric and have been for so long, you may find it difficult to believe that they weren't calculated by him for some larger purpose right from the start. After all, much of what distinguishes him from his fellow practicioners in the magic business, what has drawn them down to the Lone Star State to see Ray Anderson for themselves, is his use of characters and comedy. But to hear the man responsible tell it, he "just sort of did it without a lot of thought. You're seeing all these people around you doing characters and sketch comedy and musical numbers, and you think, 'That's a good idea.'"
This is where Anderson will tell you that Esther's has made him who he is today. It was those windows backing the Esther's stage that challenged him to expand his relationship to the audience. It was the Follies' musical variety format that gave him the opportunity to do different kinds of acts and explore the character-driven work he found most interesting. It was the prevalence of sketch comedy in the revue that gave him the freedom to show off his more playful side. Thanks to the Follies, one minute he can perform an illusion with traditional gravity, the all-knowing guard to the gates of mystery, and the next he can leer his way through a second-hand trick as Frank: "I have to say, Esther's is what makes me unique. It's strictly because of the way I'm able to showcase all of my different talents and personal characteristics into one show. How many people get a chance to do that? Not many."
Fashioned by the Follies
Somewhere along the line, too, Esther's has made a deep impression -- at least as deep an impression as Tony Curtis' Houdini -- on Anderson with regard to the performance of magic. "I try to be really good with my magic, but the trick itself is not really as important to me as the entertainment," Anderson says. "Probably most magicians don't approach their work that way. They're usually looking for the newest, the latest, the greatest. A lot of magicians now compress a trick into a two-minute bit, and it's so fast-paced that it's just a bunch of dance and flash, and that's really not my style and not the Esther's style. In the end, what good is it being a magician if you're not entertaining? You can be the best physical magician in the world -- and I've seen guys do things with cards and coins and close-up magic that I could never do -- but if it's not entertaining the audience, then you're kind of missing the boat on all of it."
A recent visit to the Pool revealed that, deep into his second decade of the magic day job, Anderson is still very much on the boat in terms of his performance philosophy. He reaches out to the crowd, takes its wrist in his hand, and monitors its pulse. He uses each line to pull the audience in closer, make them more comfortable, and raise their spirits a little higher. When he takes his act into the house, making audience members part of the show, he teases them without stooping to ridicule. He plays with them, takes care of them, gives them a good time. Small wonder, then, that he has fans by the legion, many of whom believe him deserving of a place in the American Mecca of Magic, right there between Siegfried and Roy.
"I'll have people after the show say, 'You're so good, you ought to be in Vegas,'" Anderson says. "That's just what Vegas needs, another magician. It's so saturated, I don't know how you would even begin to do a magic show there. If I went up there and tried to do what I do here, I don't think it would work at all -- especially if we didn't have the windows. And I would have to link all my stuff together into one show. Can you imagine? I don't think I could ever do that. And honestly, I don't think that my material would work there." Anderson recognizes the compliment he's being paid by such folks, but what they don't get is that he is where he is for a reason. He's able to get people so excited about his act because it's at Esther's, "and that's where it should be," he says. "It's so infused with the rest of the show and the actual physical space that I can't imagine it working as well anywhere else."
Ray Anderson has turned out to be not a magician for magic's sake but for the people in the place he calls home.
Ray Anderson performs Thursdays through Saturdays at Esther's Pool, 525 E. Sixth. For information, call 320-0553. .